June 23, 2015
After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.
Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) awakens from a coma in a San Diego hospital to feel a blind man’s hands around his throat. “I just want to find out what a dirty traitor looks like”, the man says, and Jim is thrust into the mystery of his life. He remembers nothing after his internment in a Japanese prison, nor why the staff of the military hospital treats him with disdain. He asks his nurse, “Is the war over?” She responds, “For some people it’ll never be over.” Fletcher is set to be court-martialed for the the torture killing of his friend and fellow-soldier Mark Gregory. Unaware of his own guilt, Fletcher stumbles into an escape, and searches for the truth to his past, dragging along Gregory’s widow Martha (Barbara Hale) and his army buddy Jim Niles (future director Richard Quine). In San Francisco he spots his Japanese prison guard, who seems to be connected to a larger conspiracy fronted by a U.S. business.
Richard Fleischer and Carl Foreman had first collaborated on So This is New York (1948) , the debut film for Stanley Kramer Productions, in which Foreman was a partner. Fleischer was under contract to RKO, having only made two Sharyn Moffett cute-kid moppet movies up until that point. But Kramer had admired the first of those, Child of Divorce (1946), and one of the co-screenwriters, Hubert Baker, was a school friend from Yale. The head of RKO’s B unit, Sid Rogell, had nothing for Fleischer to do after the second Moffett film, Banjo (1947), bombed at the box office. So he lent Fleischer to Kramer to direct their Ring Lardner adaptation, So This is New York. Fleischer describes his relationship with Foreman in his autobiography, Just Tell Me When to Cry:
When So This is New York was finished and I had returned to RKO serfdom, there was a long hiatus for the Kramer Company, and Carl needed a job. He had an idea for an original story called The Clay Pigeon, and I convinced Rogell to hire him to develop it into a screenplay. Carl and I both lived in the San Fernando Valley at that time, so we drove to and from work together every day. It was on one of those drives that Carl came up with an interesting suggestion. He said, “Look, since we have to spend almost two hours a day in the car, why don’t we use that time to develop a story idea I’ve got in mind?” …So over the next eight weeks, Carl and I developed the story and characters for High Noon. When the script of The Clay Pigeon was finished, Rogell called me into his office. “This is pretty poor stuff,” he said…”I don’t think your friend is going to amount to much as a writer.” He then proceeded to replace the future author of such screenplays as High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone with Lilly Hayward, the author of Banjo. My RKO contract eventually kept me from directing High Noon, although I did get to do The Clay Pigeon. It was not what could be called a good trade-off.
Just Tell Me When to Cry is one of the more self-deprecating director autobiographies you’ll read, as he’s always quick to run down his own career. So though he contextualizes The Clay Pigeon as a stepping stone of Foreman’s way to High Noon, it’s a worthy film in its own right.
Fleischer disorients us from the beginning, opening with a shot of a blind man’s hands ready to grasp Fletcher’s throat. Foreman’s script keeps the audience as equally in the dark as Fletcher – where even a sainted figure as the army nurse is antagonistic. Star Bill Williams still has the baby fat good-boy look of an approved American hero, so it’s jarring to see him as an accused war criminal, shown early on throwing Martha around in an attempt to stifle her screams. He is only trying to quiet her to beg his innocence, but in these early scenes there still exists an edge of danger, proof that extremes of violence do hide inside of him. Bill Williams was an athlete and performer from a young age, a professional swimmer and later an exhibition diver and Vaudeville adagio dancer. He enlisted in the Army and was discharged for medical reasons. He seems unusually stiff in his movements here, betraying his hoofer past, but he had been recovering from a back injury and had not acted in a year (his most enduring role was as the title character of the tv series The Adventures of Kit Carson).
The turning point in Fletcher’s investigation is the appearance of Ken Tokoyama (Richard Loo) in San Francisco, who was the most vicious guard at the prison camp Fletcher and his unit were kept in. His presence triggers Fletcher’s memory and solves the mystery of his own guilt. This could easily have devolved into a racist narrative justifying the internment of Asian-Americans during WWII, but Foreman was a political progressive, at one time a card carrying Communist who would later refuse to testify in front of HUAC, and undercuts it with a moving scene of Japanese-American integrity. As Fletcher is running from both a criminal syndicate and the police, he rushes inside a city apartment, and begs the woman there to hide him. Helen Minoto (Marya Marco) is a Japanese-American war widow, with her decorated late husband’s photo displayed prominently on the mantelpiece. She speaks without the insulting accent of most Asians in Hollywood films, and chooses to hide him because she can tell the thugs outside are not cops. When Fletcher tells her he cannot thank her enough, she simply says, “then don’t try”, and escorts him out. It is a scene that movingly depicts the contributions of Japanese-Americans to the US war effort at the same time they were being persecuted at home.
Fleischer and Foreman might prefer you forget this relatively unknown programmer from 1949, which does indeed end by putting Fletcher together again and thrusting him back into the expected narrative of postwar American life (wife and expected child), but The Clay Pigeon is worth remembering for the steely look on Marya Marco’s face as she directs Bill Williams out the door, a secret smile crawling across her face, treating the tragedies that surround her as one grand, private joke.